August 25, 2011

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

This is a highly entertaining book by the author of The Know-It-All, a hilarious account of the author reading through the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in one year. The Year of Living Biblically is subtitled: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs has a Jewish background but his parents were non-observant and going into this project, he identified himself as an agnostic. He devoted about two-thirds of his year to following the Old Testament laws and about one-third to the New Testament.

To start, he read through the entire Bible and listed every instruction he could find. He came up with over 700. He couldn't obey them all on Day 1, but he checked them off as he had obeyed them - for example if the instruction was to play a 10-string harp, when he got to that rule, he researched 10-string harps, bought one, and played it as part of his daily meditation time. In places where he found the rules contradictory, he struck a compromise - e.g. with praying, he decided to pray three times a day. His first prayers were awkward but he figured out how to use Bible verses as prayers and eventually came to look forward to praying. Other things like not wearing mixed fibres and not lying he incorporated into the entire year. He met with lots of different religious groups, from fundamentalists to Catholics, and developed a group of mentors that he could call on to ask questions.

The really funny part of the book is the reaction of his wife to the project. When he told her what he was planning, she "just emitted a little sigh," having hoped his next book would be "a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt or something." Her support wears thin on such laws as building a hut for a Jewish holiday - he lives in a high-rise in New York, so he builds one in the middle of his apartment's living room. She also hates such New Testament adventures as snake-handling and his increasingly long and scratchy beard.

I have this book and am happy to lend it. One of Jacobs's main purposes is to prove his idea that even the most literal of Bible literalists are picking and choosing. The front cover flap says the journey Jacobs takes is both universal and personal and will make you see history's most influential book with new eyes. The Year of Living Biblically is a very funny book, but even better for me was that it fit into the new philosophy of the Bible I've been thinking about. Jacobs's conclusions about what the Bible's all about match closely with the ideas Rob Bell talks about in Love Wins.

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